Connecting locals and foreigners with Japan’s modern and ancient landmarks and cultural experiences, both in its major centers and increasingly in its lesser-known rural wonders, the Tobu Railway Co., Ltd. has played a significant role in expanding people’s knowledge, love and appreciation of Japan for more than a century. President Yoshizumi Nezu explains Tobu’s long-term view of helping diffuse Japan’s booming tourism sector to further-flung delights throughout the country and its plans for expansion.
While the views on Abenomics’ success are mixed, tourism is one sector that without a doubt has seen a strong resurgence in recent years with record setting visitors coming into the country last year. In your view, what policy adjustments are key to the continued success of tourism in Japan?
I do believe that Abenomics has had a strong positive impact on the Japanese economy. Obviously, unemployment has gone down and the currency is beginning to devalue. In the tourism sector, we have seen an increased number of flights landings in Japan because of the easing of restrictions for travelers; we have seen an increased number of shoppers as well due to the currency devaluation and changes in duty free. These are actual concrete proposals that we saw implemented, and such policies were directly responsible for the increases in tourism.
However, while the number of tourists is increasing, visitors tend to concentrate in the same areas, and so does their spending. They come to Tokyo, see Mount Fuji, go to Kyoto, and go to Hokkaido in the winter, then they go home. The real question is how to effectively distribute and diffuse tourism in Japan on a broader basis.
The place that needs the most tourist attention is the Tohoku region, which is the area that was devastated by the 3/11 earthquake. Unfortunately tourists are not going there, whereas this is one of the places where they can have the most positive impact on the local economy. At Tobu, we have offices in the Tohoku region. When I go to visit these offices, I meet with the prefecture government and the mayors, and their message is very clear. They understand that tourism is increasing, but they are not feeling it. They want us to help come up with a plan to increase the number of tourists coming to visit their region and help revitalize the local economy. The government and Tobu are both looking at promoting our line that runs from Tokyo to Nikko - Kinugawa to Fukushima. We hope to get people to travel from Tokyo out to these areas to help stimulate the economy.
So in summary, the main issue is getting tourist to diffuse throughout the country.
The second big issue is how to get tourists to visit multiple times. We want them to not just come once, but to fall in love and come back frequently. In order to do this we need to create strong communication strategies to reach out to visitor and tell them not only the wonders of Japan, but also the wonders of the lesser-known parts. This will help us draw in repeat tourists.
In regards to communication, how can these smaller areas or lesser-known areas better position themselves to draw in tourists?
As a company we are seeking to help these smaller regions by diffusing information about the stops we service. When you look at increasing tourist and drawing in repeat tourist, you need tourism assets. You have nature, beautiful sights, historical places and museums and things like that. So because we already have these we need to position these things inside the hearts and minds of tourists to be able to bring them in.
So to ensure we reach people’s hearts we have to appeal to their senses. Food is a big one, so we focus on foods. We see the beautiful sites as wonderful draws but food as anchors. We want to make sure wherever people go in these areas; they are accompanied by really great food. This also is not limited to international tourism, but also domestic tourism. Making sure good food is around is fundamental to creating tourism. Japanese cuisine and fashion are really bid draws. At the end of the day, these are functions of the way you live in Japan. And if we can address these basic needs in a traditional way, I think we can get people excited visiting.
Over the past year, we have been looking ourselves at how we can communicate our message to overseas markets. One of the efforts we do is to invite famous bloggers or writers from overseas to come and experience the Skytree and our railway stations. When they see these things firsthand they can write articles and reviews about their experiences and disseminate information in their own native language.
Tobu is a fantastic representative of Japan’s brand of tourism. It’s a flagship company both in Japan’s tourism and transportation industries, since Tobu is the second largest private railway in Japan, operating a network of 463.3 kilometers across the Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures. How are you leveraging your various companies to create synergies and better enhance Japan’s tourism industry?
Tobu Railway has been founded 119 years ago, originally as a railway company, which means that we have a very strong social mission and a public interest, and we were already conducting tourism at the same time. The Tokyo Skytree which has become a very big tourism attraction in Tokyo has both a tourism function but also a social function since it is hosting also an antenna, and in this regard that we consider both railway and Skytree to be part of the national and social infrastructure.
Our mission for the next hundred years is to continue to operate, maintain and protect the infrastructure that our founders have left us, which include railway, as well as antennas. We need to pass on this infrastructure to the next generation so Tobu as a company can continue in the best way possible. When the first railway tracks were laid down for our company, Asakusa, Senso-ji, Nikko already existed, so from the start Tobu was a social infrastructure company focused on transportation and tourism. Both business divisions are seamlessly integrated, we make sure that there are no friction between the two, and that they can be well combined.
Tobu’s vision is very long term: we are looking at the next 100 years, at the next 20 or 30 years. The attractions to which Tobu Railway provide transportation are very ancient places: the main shrine in Asakusa, the Sensoji Temple, was originally created in 645-628 – over 1,300 years ago – while the other temples in Nikko were built about 1,250 years ago. When we look at our company, which only has just over 100 years of history, in comparison it makes us think how small we are and what a small impact we’ve had.
We feel we have a duty to bring the tourists to these attractions and to protect these routes. We feel we have a duty as well to communicate about these attractions to the visitors to Japan.
Japan is certainly a place where history, where tradition, meet novelty and innovation; and Tobu is certainly a great illustration of this. Can you elaborate further on these sites that you serve, and what makes these sites so unique and must-see attractions in Japan?
These sites all have very ancient roots, but there are also some deep historical reasons as to why these sites are important. For example Asakusa before the war was one of the biggest open markets in Tokyo; it was a place to eat, as well as a place to have interaction with people. Asakusa is also a place that appeals to basic human instincts, and I believe that when building attractive tourism sites there is also always a component of appealing to basic human instincts. This is what creates an attractive site, and those are the places that we provide access to.
In addition, Asakusa also hosts Tokyo’s oldest Shinto shrine, while Nikko hosts many Buddhist temples. Although Japanese people aren’t especially religious people compared to the West, these are extremely big pilgrimage places for the Japanese, which is of course an essential element to mention. Visitors can pray in front of the statue of Kannon (Boddhisattva), they can also draw an Omikuji (a paper for fortune telling) and experience these kinds of traditions and beliefs.
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State Building, Dubai has the Burj Dubai. To what extend is the Tokyo Skytree the landmark building of Tokyo, and can you give us a brief history of the construction and design of this building?
This is a long story, which could take easily half a day. We are a railway transportation company, linking among others the Asakusa area, which is our main base of operation. Our main focus is to increase the number of people who go for example from Asakusa to Nikko for example, and increase the traffic on the railway to this area. Asakusa is also conveniently linked to Narita and to Haneda, which is also an important point that plays in our favor. These people who come from Narita to Asakusa, they go to all kind of different places that are not on the Tobu rail lines, because they did not have attractions to bring them in. So the idea was to give them something to visit.
We were very fortunate: we already had the four-hectare site where the Skytree stands now. The site was the vacant lot where the railroad yard was. At the same time there was demand for a new antenna to be built at a higher altitude. These elements combined and just gave us the perfect opportunity to bring this building to life.
We conceived this project about 10 years ago. We originally named it the “Rising East”. So the character for Tobu means East. When we built this, we were thinking about how we could help our company rise. When we talked to our stakeholders we realized that this actually had a greater meaning. Some 20 or 30 years ago, the Tokyo municipal government moved from central Tokyo to the west, so the western part of Tokyo accelerated its urban development while the eastern part started lagging behind, such as the Sumida Ward. Our stakeholders wanted this “Rising East” project to not just represent Tobu rising, but also represent the entire Eastern part of Tokyo rising. But then the unfortunate earthquake happened in Fukushima, and therefore we feel that the Tokyo Skytree project represents the entire east region of Japan itself.
We see the Tokyo Skytree as a symbol of revitalization for eastern Japan. We have been very fortunate to be able to represent all these things. We hope to be a symbol to represent all these people who were harmed by the earthquake, and a reminder for people to be brave, stand against adversity and look to the future. And now with the Olympics, we hope that once again our name will show hope rising in all of the Far East side of the world.
Next year will mark a big anniversary for Tobu Railway. As president of the company that will lead the company to the future, what is your personal vision? Where do you hope to lead Tobu to be in the next 100 years, when you will be celebrating your bicentennial?
This is a very grand question. For me, our 20,000 employees are the most important assets of the company. What gives me joy is to be able to provide an environment where these employees can continue to be lively and have positive thinking, providing new ideas to improve the management of the company. As an individual I have obviously a limited influence, but what I can do is make sure that our employees can continue to work in the best environment.
Regarding the next 100 years, I have to be careful. We are not a big company and thus we face several limits: in our properties, in our capital. The only unlimited thing that we have is human potential. If in 100 years from now we can be a company that is always able to harness and adapt to the unlimited potential of our employees by proving them an adequate environment, I will be very proud.
What would be your final message to our international audience?
First I would like to highlight that we are working on our international expansion, to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand to start with. Regarding the North American market, there are 3.8 million tourists from Japan who visit the US every year. However, there are only 1 million US tourists who come to Japan every year. The number of tourists in unbalanced and this is a big mismatch, which as a company we would like to fix so these numbers can come to parity. We think this is something Tobu should undertake and contribute to, as a company.
The Courtyard® by Marriott® Tokyo Ginza Hotel in Ginza was the first hotel in partnership with the Marriott Group within the Tobu group. At first we tied a partnership with Ramada Renaissance at the time. After that, Marriott acquired Ramada. It was created 29 years ago. We have a very close relationship with the Marriott Group. In this hotel in Ginza, more than 70% of our guests are foreigners, most of them from the US, so we have a very strong relationship with America.
Moving forward, we have several plans to develop new hotels under the Tobu group in the future, and obviously we are mainly looking to partner with the Marriott brand again. We are interested in developing a higher level Marriott hotel and not just a simple Courtyard level one. If possible I would be also keen on opening a hotel such as a Ritz Carlton in the middle of Tokyo and on our railroad line.
My final message is very simple: Japan has a lot of good things to eat.